Out and About

Activists gather in Denver to discuss opt-out strategy

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Roshan Bliss, an organizer from the Colorado Student Power Alliance, takes notes during a work session Saturday at the United Opt-Out conference in downtown Denver.

Opponents of high-stakes standardized tests are gathering en masse this weekend in Denver to develop their strategy.

Organized by Colorado-based nonprofit United Opt-Out, the event, which will feature keynote speakers from around the county and working groups, is billed as the first of its kind.

“If this works, we’ll take it on the road,” said Peggy Robertson, one of the organization’s leaders.

While a small number of parents have always opted their children out of state standardized tests — about 1 percent here according to the Colorado Department of Education — the movement appears to be gaining traction.

Last fall, the Douglas County Public Schools Board of Education hosted a series of town hall forums to discuss “testing madness.” The board later drafted legislation to allow whole school districts the ability opt-out of the state’s standardized tests. That legislation has since been amended to create a testing panel to investigate the amount and efficacy of the state’s testing requirements.

And this spring, while student began to take the TCAP portion of this year’s standardized tests, schools around the state wrestled with how to reconcile state law, which requires all students to be tested, and the parental rights that opponents of the test they believe they have to opt-out.

How many students have and will be opted-out of the state’s standardized tests this year, a measurement of how effective the grassroots argument has come, won’t be known until later this summer when results are released. But some districts estimated as much as 30 percent of students would be opted out, according to one state official.

Schools and districts who do not test at least 95 percent of their students are penalized by the state. The department uses the results from the tests to measure school effectiveness. And soon, teacher evaluations will also rely heavily on the results of these tests too.

Supporters believe the tests hold educators accountable.

“Testing is designed to help us know how students, the system and the schools are performing,” said Scott Laband, president of Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit coalition of business leaders that support education reform. “They tell us where we stand today and what we need to improve on. We haven’t seen enough improvement [yet in our schools]. And the data shows us there is a need for continuous improvement.”

Chalkbeat reporter Nic Garcia is at the opt-out conference. Below are his live, unedited updates:

Three takeaways

By time the three-day United Opt-Out conference ended Sunday evening, pads of poster-sized paper had been filled and scribbled over with goals, priorities, platitudes, and action.

Leaders of the movement, several of them teachers, are now combing through everything and lending support where they can as they would to a student grappling with a difficult text or math equation.

The conference, in and of itself, was a big first step for the opt-out movement. Once a loose network of concerned teachers and parents connected by chatrooms and social media, it’s on its way to having clear(-ish) defined strategies and goals.

What specific actions the opt-out movement will take next are unknown. And whether those actions will have any impact on the lawmakers and decision-makers is even muddier.

In the meantime, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s three big takeaways from the United Opt-Out Conference:

    • Passion isn’t a strategy — The question hanging over the three-day conference was how the grassroots movement could sustain itself. United Opt-Out, the organization behind the event, is run by a group of six volunteers who have full-time jobs, and organizers say there’s no clear funding mechanism. The aim of the conference was to develop a network and clear next steps that included action — not just more dialogue. But action, especially for novice activists, can be a daunting task. Leaders consistently reminded those new to organizing to keep it simple. How invested the rest of the movement is in creating change and whether they’ll heed the advice of their leaders remains to be seen.
    • Tangible alternatives that are scalable — Some leaders who have been part of the anti-testing movement for years (in some case decades) acknowledge there’s a need to come up with alternatives to the high-stakes tests and standardization they seek to undermine. The data garnered from the tests has proven, as one conference attendee put it, that schools can be “racist” and “classist.” One of the strongest arguments proponents of testing make is that the exams have served to expose the inequities that exist in an education system that often fails to educate low-income and at-risk students compared to their affluent peers. Whether the movement can come up with something that can satisfy a system that has become increasingly hungry for data and do a better job at providing equity for all students will be what turns a movement into a revolution.
    • Shades of beige — The answer, or at least part of the answer, to both aforementioned issues depends on the movements ability to reach out to communities of color, English language learners, and poor families. At one breakout session a facilitator asked for volunteers to discuss how the movement could recruit those populations. No one immediately volunteered. Those at-risk communities have reaped reward of better schools because of accountability-based reforms, supporters of standardized tests claim. The success of the opt-out movement will largely hinge on how the opt-out movement will present its argument to those communities. As organizer Peggy Robertson put it, networking with other communities across Colorado has been the organization’s biggest challenge.

In their own words

Programing note

1:01 p.m.: Most of the conference has taken a break for lunch. When they return at 1:30 p.m. the six working groups will present their work to the larger conference. They’ll also be discussing direct actions the group can take in Colorado. That portion of the conference is closed to media. However, we’ll be posting some video and takeaways later.

Sunday morning breakout sessions

Melissa Clark, a Denver parent, discusses possible actions she can take to share information about the opt-out movement and how it relates to human rights. Clark was one of about 120 participants at a opt-out conference in Denver this weekend.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Melissa Clark, a Denver parent, discusses possible actions she can take to share information about the opt-out movement and how it relates to human rights. Clark was one of about 120 participants at a opt-out conference in Denver this weekend.

11:26 a.m.: Many involved in the modern education reform movement like to say their work is the civil rights issues of the day. But for some at the opt-out conference, their work is a human rights issue.

Civil rights are governed by lawmakers, while human rights are not, said Sam Anderson of New York. He works with the Coalition of Public Education.

The working group on civil rights is working toward specific actions that can be taken in Denver. But there’s a lot of apprehension and fear, Anderson said.

“I’m inspired, but overwhelmed,” said Denver parent Melissa Clark. “It’s huge. The [movement] is a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be.”

The group agrees they need to build a counter narrative to the education reform movement they oppose. Can Clark design a pamphlet to distribute to her friends or other parents at her school? Can she canvas a neighborhood? Can she network with the media?

Clark takes a deep breath and looks over her carefully-taken and detailed notes.

Another person at the table mentions her moms’ group. Start there, she suggests.

Clark nods and smiles. She can do that.

“A lot of [my friends] are on the cusp of deciding what to do,” Clark said.

The next action, Anderson and others from out of town suggest to Clark, only needs to be small and local.

Sunday morning keynote

10:25 a.m.: Angela Engel, one of the Colorado’s opt-out movement’s early leaders, evangelized for the crowd this morning. She linked the education reform movement, which puts a huge emphasis on standards, testing and accountability, to big tobacco and other propaganda campaigns throughout history. She recalled for the crowd how some doctors endorsed cigarettes even though they knew that smoking was harmful.

The reformers’ claim to be doing their work to help disadvantaged children is a red herring, she said.

“People don’t matter [to them],” she said. “The data matters. The power matters.”

And their tactics aren’t working. She said there are more at-risk students and remediation rates are climbing in Colorado.

She was blunt: “This is work difficult. But it’s difficult because it’s important.”

The crowd, which is visibly smaller than yesterday, is now working through the final hours of the conference in small groups. They’ll be presenting their goals, actions and takeaways later this afternoon.

Why some people support standardized tests

9:49 a.m.: Leading up to this weekend’s conference, we asked the Colorado Children’s Campaign, one of Colorado’s largest education advocacy organizations to share their point-of-view. Here’s what they had to say regarding opting-out and standardized tests:

The Colorado Children’s Campaign supports the rights of parents to choose what is best for their children, and also want to ensure students of every background have every chance to succeed in school.

We support assessments that give us feedback on how our schools are performing for every child. Advocates have worked for a long time to ensure that all students, regardless of ability, race, ethnicity, income or any other background, are included in all aspects of the school—including assessments. Parents and taxpayers need a complete picture of how schools are performing and serving all students.

History has shown us that without policies that explicitly ensure all students have access to the same high standards and opportunities to measure levels of understanding we will not have a fair and equitable education system. The same high standards should be set for every child, and parents and educators can ensure that children of all backgrounds have every chance to meet those standards with the appropriate curricula and adaptations for assessments needed for students with special needs or those learning English as a second language.

We agree that it’s important to examine how much time students spend being assessed throughout the year. Formative and summative assessments both have distinct roles and provide valuable feedback to children, educators, parents and schools. Finding that balance as we move into a new system of high standards and aligned assessments should be a priority.

Without question, families are right to require the district to prove their child’s data is secure. Districts that have piloted advanced testing and evaluation systems have ensured the implementation of these important advances have been overseen by advisory councils comprised of parents, teachers, principals, business and community leaders and experts. Why would we deny our children and our children’s educators the same useful technologies most of us rely on daily? We need to embrace the real reforms we say we want.

Providing a high quality education for all of our kids is a big task. When we face challenging tasks in life, we take advantage of the incredible technology advances we have come to rely on. If we want a better education for all our kids, we have to start making the same choices to embrace change, instead of letting fear prevent us from moving forward.

Fox coverage

9:43 a.m.Here’s a report from KDVR’s Kent Erdahl on this weekend’s conference.


Saturday afternoon keynote

5 p.m.: Keynote speaker Ricardo Rosa just finished and is taking questions from the audience. His speech touched on many of the regular themes heard among opt-outers.

“Standardized testing has become morally obscene,” he said. “It needs to be interrupted.”

However, as a person of color, his speech did bring a unique perspective, especially to the mostly white audience.

He suggested the reform efforts often tied to standardized tests negatively impact poor students.

The opt-out movement, he said, needs to reach out to parents of color. What’s more, he said, is the movement needs to go where those parents are.

“You need to move in those spaces with them and be comfortable there,” he said.

He also argued, answering a question from an audience member, that the movement should cross boundaries beyond just education.

“We should be struggling against the prison industrial-complex and immigration [issues],” he said.

The opt-out conference continues Sunday with a keynote from Angela Engel. In the afternoon, all six working groups will present to the rest of the conference. Our coverage will resume at about 9 a.m.

Saturday afternoon breakout session

4 p.m. Participants in the opt-out movement have many different reasons why they don’t like standardized tests. Some fear for their students’ data; others do not believe in the high-stakes approach. The list can go on and is very complex.

What maybe longer and even more nuanced is what they want in place of the current standardized testing model. Whether they’ll be able to come to any consensus on an alternative to testing may be the ultimate assessment of the movement.

A group of about 15 participants at the United Opt-Out conference in Denver filled sheets of poster-sized paper with priorities and alternatives to standardized testing. They did identify four priorities including: building out the movement, identifying partners and schools already within the system that could join the movement, dispelling myths of negative consequences for opting-out, and diversifying the movement.

But the conversation, while passionate, sometimes lacked focus. Mini-debates on whether assessments were needed at all,  if portfolios were a plausible solution, and how to hold teachers and schools accountable, if at all, without high stakes broke out.

One member of the group, Monty Neill, suggested there had to be some standard measurement to make sure schools, especially those who serve marginalized communities, are helping their students learn. But those measurements should be closer to the schools, he said.

“I don’t think it’s simple, but networks of schools can do it,” he said. “Societies can.”

But Neill’s idea was a non-starter for several members of the group.

“I don’t want tests,” Neill said. “I want information.”

Recognizing the working group was too big to discuss all of the solutions they’d need to come up with the group decided to break into smaller groups of three or four people to discuss one of the identified priorities.

Opt-out activist and author Angela Engahl discusses legislation options at the United Opt-Out Conference in Denver.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Opt-out activist and author Angela Engel discusses legislation options at the United Opt-Out Conference in Denver with Douglas County residents Tamil Coyle, center, and Laura Welch.

2:25 p.m.: This year was the year of moms at the Colorado Capitol, according to Denver Post reporter Lynn Bartels.

And if the moms at the United Opt Out Conference have anything to say about it, they’ll be back.

Six moms gathered around a table at the Denver Athletic Club to discuss how they could help others like them work the back rooms at the Colorado General Assembly and other state legislatures.

The working group, led by opt-out activist Angela Engel, decided they need to create a legislative guidebook, a how-to on everything from how to contact elected officials to mobilize testimony for a bill.

Moms need to know how to “get a good bill sponsor, write legislation and bring together testimony,” Engel said.

They also said model legislation on issues like parents’ rights and withdrawing from the Common Core State Standards, a set of national standards adopted by 45 states, was needed.

Before leaving the table, Engel also suggested Colorado moms need more representation at the General Assembly.

“There are future legislators here at this table,” she said. “If we’re looking for leadership — it’s us.”

Saturday morning breakout session

Diane Anderson, a Denver Public Schools employee, takes notes while Kris Nielsen, a New Mexican author, leads a discussion on the influence of corporate reform on standardized testing.
Diane Anderson, a Denver Public Schools employee, takes notes while Kris Nielsen, a New Mexican author, leads a discussion on the influence of corporate reform on standardized testing.

12:45 p.m. After Sahlberg’s keynote, participants at the United-Opt Out conference broke out into one of six working groups. One, titled “Corporate Ed Reform 101,” had participants from Ohio, New Mexico and Iowa. Denver parent Stacey Johnson also participated. The group suggested the opt-out movement needs an umbrella organization with a strong digital presence that smaller organizations, like SPEAK Cherry Creek, could refer too.

“Everything needs to be in one place,” another parent said. “If information is hard to find, some parents will give up.”

Being an opt-out parent can also be lonely, the working group agreed. Having a digital community parents can access for support would be beneficial.

Most of the working groups have taken a break  for lunch. When they return, their task is to formulate goals and develop strategies.

“We’ve never done this before,” said Carmen Scalfaro, a grad student from Cincinnati, Ohio. “Coming up with something new is hard to do.”

Saturday morning keynote

Finish educator Pasi Sahlberg speaks at the United Opt-Out conference in Denver.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg speaks at the United Opt-Out conference in Denver.

10:26 a.m.: Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg is speaking. His morning keynote was interrupted by a fire alarm.

He told the audience the United States needs to let go of its global competition in education and focus nationally on equity for all of its students.

He also suggested there should be more women lawmakers in the U.S. That played well with the moms.

10:53 a.m. Sahlberg says data and tests not innately bad; for example, he supports the PISA tests, an international measure of how much students around the world know.

11:05 a.m. Citing data from the PISA tests, Sahlberg says the U.S. is actually doing well and is close to the international average on achievement and equity. “It’s a good place to be,” given how complex the nation is, he said. But if the U.S. wants to improve on a global scale it needs to focus on closing the current achievement gap. The current strategy of raising standards and expectations, is backward, he said. That strategy will only widen the gap.

11:13 a.m. Sahlberg suggests most U.S. policies are contrary to one another. His example goes like this: The U.S. wants schools to innovate, through programs such as the federal grant competition Race to the Top. But, he argued, standards kill creativity. And you can only have innovation if you have creativity and freedom. Freedom can only exist in a safe environment. And there is no safe environment in U.S. education policy because of high-stakes standardized tests.

11:43 a.m. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” said organizer Peggy Robertson cutting off Shalberg’s presentation. This afternoon, she said, working groups will be goal setting and developing action plans for teachers, parents, students and other interested parties. They’ll present plans tomorrow.

failing grade

Why one Harvard professor calls American schools’ focus on testing a ‘charade’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Harvard professor Daniel Koretz is on a mission: to convince policymakers that standardized tests have been widely misused.

In his new book, “The Testing Charade,” Koretz argues that federal education policy over the last couple of decades — starting with No Child Left Behind, and continuing with the Obama administration’s push to evaluate teachers in part by test scores — has been a barely mitigated disaster.

The focus on testing in particular has hurt schools and students, Koretz argues. Meanwhile, Koretz says the tests are of little help for accurately identifying which schools are struggling because excessive test prep inflates students’ scores.

“Neither good intentions nor the value of well-used tests justifies continuing to ignore the absurdities and failures of the current system and the real harms it is causing,” Koretz writes in the book’s first chapter.

Daniel Koretz, Harvard Graduate School of Education

His skepticism will be welcome to families of students who have opted out of state tests across the country and others who have led a testing backlash in recent years. That sentiment helped shape the new federal education law, ESSA.

Koretz has another set of allies in some conservative charter and voucher advocates, including — to an extent — Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who criticized No Child Left Behind in a recent speech. “As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects,” she said. “Others simply inflated scores or lowered standards.”

But national civil rights groups and some Democratic politicians have made a different case: That it’s the government’s responsibility to continue to use test scores to hold schools accountable for serving their students, especially students of color, poor students, and students with disabilities. (ESSA continues to require testing in grades three through eight and for states to identify their lowest performing schools, largely by using test scores.)

We talked to Koretz about his book and asked him to explain how he reached his conclusions and what to make of research that paints a more positive picture of tests and No Child Left Behind.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Do you want to walk me through the central thesis of your book?

The reason I wrote the book is really the subtitle: we’re “pretending to make schools better.”

Most of the bad news that’s in this book is old news. We’ve been collecting evidence of various kinds about the impact of the very heavy handed, high-stakes testing that we use in this country for a long time. I lost patience with people pretending that these facts aren’t present. So I decided it would be worth writing a book that summarizes the evidence both good and bad about the effects of test-based accountability. When you do that, you end up with an awful lot on the bad side and not very much on the good side.

Can you talk about some of the bad effects?

There are a few that are particularly important. One is absolutely rampant bad test prep. It’s just everywhere. One of the consequences of that is that test scores are often very badly inflated.

There aren’t all that many studies of this because it’s not really a welcome suggestion. When you go to the superintendent and say, “Gee, I’d like to see whether your scores are inflated,” they rarely say, “Boy, we’ve been waiting for you to show up.” There aren’t that many studies, but they’re very consistent. The inflation that does show up is sometimes absolutely massive. Worse, there is growing evidence that that problem is more severe for disadvantaged kids, creating the illusion of improved equity.

Another is increasingly widespread cheating. We, of course, will never know just how widespread because there aren’t resources to examine the data from 13,000 school districts. Everyone knows about Atlanta, a few people know about El Paso, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s obviously also — and perhaps this should be on the same par — enormous amounts of stress for teachers, for kids, and for parents. That’s the bad side.

I want to ask a little more about test score inflation. What is the strongest evidence for inflation? And let me give you two pieces that to me seem like potentially countervailing evidence. One piece is when I’m looking at research on school turnaround — like the most recent School Improvement Grant program and also turnaround efforts in New York City — these schools have been under intensive pressure to raise test scores. And yet their test scores gains on high-stakes tests have been pretty modest at best. The other example is the Smarter Balanced exam. The scores on the Smarter Balanced exam don’t seem to be going up. If anything, they’re going down.

The main issue is that score inflation doesn’t occur in the same amount everywhere. You’ve come up with two examples where there is apparently very little. There are other examples that are much worse than the aggregate data suggest.

In the case of Smarter Balanced, I would wait and see. Score inflation can only occur when people become sufficiently aware of predictable patterns in the test. You can’t game a test when you don’t know what irrelevant things are going to recur, and that just may take some time.

I’m wondering your take on why some of the strongest advocates for test-based accountability have been national civil rights groups.

One of the rationales for some of the most draconian test-based accountability programs we’ve had has been to improve equity. If you got back to the enactment of NCLB, you had [then-Massachusetts Sen.] Teddy Kennedy and [then-California Rep.] George Miller actively lobbying their colleagues in support of a Republican bill. George Miller summed that up in one sentence in a meeting I went to. He said, “It will shed some light in the corners.” He said that schools had been getting away with giving lousy services to disadvantaged kids by showing good performance among advantaged kids, and this would make it in theory impossible to do that.

Even going back before NCLB, I think that’s why there was so much support in the disability community for including disabled kids in test-based accountability in the 1990s — so they couldn’t be hidden away in the basement anymore. I think that’s absolutely laudable. It’s the thing I praise the most strongly about NCLB.

It just didn’t work. That’s really clear from the evidence.

I think the intention was laudable and I think the intention was why high-stakes testing has gotten so much support in the minority community, but it just has failed.

You mention in your book probably the most widely cited study on the achievement effects of No Child Left Behind, showing that there were big gains in fourth grade math and some gains in eighth grade math, but there wasn’t anything good or bad in reading.

Pretty much. There was a little bit of improvement in some years in reading but nothing to write home about.

So the math gains — and that was on the low-stakes federal NAEP test — they’re just not worth it in your view?

I think the gains are real. But there are some reasons not be terribly excited about these. One is that they don’t persist. They decline a little bit by eighth grade, they disappear by the time kids are out of high school. We don’t have good data about kids as they graduate from high school, but what we do have doesn’t show any improvement.

The biggest reason I’m not as excited as some people are about those gains is we’ve had evidence going back to the 1980s that one of the responses that teachers have had to test-based accountability is to take time out of untested subjects and to put it into math and reading. We don’t know how much of that gain in math is because people are teaching math better and how much is because kids aren’t learning about civics.

That’s, in my view, not enough to justify all of the stuff on the other side of the ledger.

When I’ve looked at some studies on the impact of NCLB on students’ social-emotional skills, the impact on teachers’ attitudes in the classrooms, and the impact on voluntary teacher turnover, they haven’t found any negative effects. They also haven’t found positive effects in most cases. But that would seem to at least in one sense undermine the argument that NCLB had big harmful effects on these other outcomes.

I haven’t seen those studies, but I don’t think what you describe does undermine it. What I would like to see is an analysis of long-term trends not just on teacher attrition but on teacher selection. A lot of what I have heard has really been, frankly, anecdotal. I was once a public school teacher and teaching now is utterly unlike what it was when I taught. It seems unlikely that that had no effect on who opts in and who opts out to be a teacher.

I don’t have evidence of this but I suspect that to some extent different types of people are selecting into teaching now than were teaching 30 years ago.

Can you talk about what you see as good versus bad test prep?

Something that Audrey Qualls at the University of Iowa said was, “A student has only mastered something if she can do it when confronted with unfamiliar particulars.”

Think about training pilots — you would never train pilots by putting them in a simulator and then always running exactly the same set of conditions because next time you were in the plane and the conditions were different you’d die. What you want to know is that the pilot has enough understanding and a good enough command of the physical motions and whatnot that he or she can respond to whatever happens to you while you’re up there. That’s not all that distant an analogy from testing.

Bad test prep is test prep that is designed to raise scores on the particular test rather than give kids the underlying knowledge and skills that the test is supposed to capture. It’s absolutely endemic. In fact, districts and states peddle this stuff themselves.

I take it it’s very hard to quantify this test prep phenomenon, though?

It is extremely hard, and there’s a big hole in the research in this area.

Let’s turn from a backward-looking to a forward-looking discussion. What is your take on ESSA? Do you think it’s a step in the right direction?

This may be a little bit simplistic, but I think of ESSA as giving states back a portion of the flexibility they had before No Child Left Behind. It doesn’t give them as much flexibility as they had in 2000.  

It has the potential to substantially reduce pressure, but it doesn’t seem to be changing the basic logic of the system, which is that the thing that will drive school improvement is pushing people to improve test scores. So I’m not optimistic.

One of things that I argue very strongly at the end of the book is that we need to look at a far broader range of, not just outcomes, but aspects of schooling to create an accountability system that will generate more of what we want. ESSA takes one tiny step in that direction: it says you have to have one measure beyond testing and graduation rates. But if you read the statute it almost doesn’t matter what that measure is. The one mandate is that it can’t count as much as test scores — that’s written in the statute. The notion that it means the same thing to monitor the quality of practice or to monitor attendance rates is just absurd

As I’m sure you know, research — including from some of your colleagues at Harvard — has shown that so-called “no-excuses” charter schools in places like Boston, Chicago, and New York City, have led to substantial test score gains and in some cases improvements in four-year college enrollment. Are you skeptical that those gains are the result of genuine learning?

It depends on which test you’re talking about. Some of the no-excuses charter schools drill kids on the state test, so I don’t trust the state test scores for some of those schools. I think it’s entirely plausible that some of those schools are going to affect long-term outcomes because they’re in some cases replacing a very disorderly environment with a very orderly one. In fact, I would say too orderly by quite a margin.

But those reforms are much bigger than just test-based accountability or just the control structure we call charters. It’s a whole host of different things that are going on: different disciplinary policies, different kinds of teacher selection, different kinds of behavioral requirements, all sorts of things.

A lot of the discussion around accountability, including in your book, is about the measures we should be using to identify schools. I’m interested in your take on what happens when a school is identified by whatever system — perhaps by the holistic system you described in the book — as low performing.

The first step is to figure out why is it bad. I would use scores as an opening to a better evaluation of schools. If scores on a good test are low, something is wrong, but we don’t know what. Before we intervene we ought to find out what’s wrong.

This is the Dutch model: school inspections are concentrated on schools that shows signs of having problems, because that’s where the payoff is. I would want to know what’s wrong and then you can design an alternative. In some cases, it may be the teaching staff is too weak. It may be in some cases the teaching staff needs supports they don’t have. It may be like in the case of Baltimore, they need to turn the heat on. Who knows? But I don’t think we can design sensible interventions until we know what the problems are.

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.